Ancient Rome & the Bible

by Jimmy Akin

in +Religion

How did ancient Rome influence the Bible and the gospel story itself? The essential facts every Christian needs to know!

The Bible records a number of ancient civilizations. Perhaps the most famous of these is ancient Rome.

By the time of the New Testament, Rome was the major world power, and it was in control of the Holy Land during the entire earthly life of Jesus and during the lives of his immediate followers.

Jesus was born during the reign of the Roman emperor Augustus. He was crucified during the reign of the Roman emperor Tiberius. The book of Acts records the Roman emperor Claudius by name. And both St. Peter and St. Paul were martyred at Rome by the Emperor Nero.

It is clear that the Romans were extraordinarily important to the world in which the New Testament was written.

All that makes it worth asking: Who were the Romans, and where did their civilization come from?

The Legendary Founding

The answer is shrouded in the mists of time, and ancient legends get in the way of an exact knowledge of the facts.

According to the Romans’ own account, the city of Rome was founded in the wake of the famous Trojan War.

Specifically, it was founded on April 21st in 753 B.C. by two twins named Romulus and Remus.

These two twins were supposedly the grandsons of an earlier king—Numitor—but they were raised by a she-wolf, and so they were feral children.

When they founded the city of Rome they had a quarrel, and Romulus killed Remus. Romulus thus became the sole and original king of Rome.

The Roman Kingdom

This led to a period known as “the Roman kindom,” in which Rome was ruled by a series of kings.

This period is supposed to have lasted from the founding in 753 B.C. until about 509 B.C.

It is characterized by the fact that Rome was ruled by kings, just like other peoples were. During this time seven kings supposedly reigned over Rome, beginning with Romulus and ending with Tarquinius Superbus, or “Tarquin the Proud.”

Eventually, however, the people of Rome were fed up with their kings and overthrew them, leading to a new period in the history of Rome.

The Roman Republic

This led to the “Roman Republic,” a period in which Rome lacked a monarch.

The word “republic” comes from the Latin res publica, which means “public thing”—a reference to the fact that how the state was governed was now a public thing rather than a matter for just the kings.

To replace the kings, power was divided between two men, known as consuls, who were elected every year and had significant checks on their powers, including term limits.

The Roman Republic lasted from the overthrow of the kings around 509 B.C. until the first century B.C.

The Roman Empire

The Romans found that their system of divided government, with power split up among the consuls and other government officials, was at times unwieldy.

As a result, in times of crisis, they sometimes appointed dictators—men who could run the state as single individuals, but only for a limited period prescribed by law, to keep the dictator from turning into a tyrant.

Eventually this system broke down, when one particular dictator—Julius Caesar—engineered a situation in which he was proclaimed “dictator in perpetuity.”

That was too close to the idea of kingship, and the situation didn’t last long. He was quickly assassinated by a conspiracy in the Senate.

His heir was a man named Octavian, and he eventually accumulated as much power as Julius Caesar had possessed—and more.

Some wanted him to be given the title “king,” but Octavian knew that would be dangerous, so he allowed the Roman Senate to vote him different titles.

One title became the name he is known by today: Augustus.

The other was a military title that meant “commander.” In Latin this word is imperator, and from it we get the English word emperor.

Augustus this became the first of the Roman emperors, and the Roman empire was born.

Rome and the Life of Jesus

Rome had been accumulating power through conquest even since the time of the Roman kings, and by the reign of Augustus Caesar it had become the dominant power in Europe, North Africa, and the Middle East.

They were in political control of the Holy Land at the time Jesus was born, and it was they who had appointed Herod as “king of the Jews.” It was also Augustus Caesar who called for the enrollment that led Joseph and Mary to Bethlehem.

The impact of the Romans on the gospel story is thus apparent right from the beginning.

Their impact was still present at the time of Jesus’ adult ministry, when other members of the Herod family were ruling parts of his kingdom, and when the Roman governor of Judea, Pontius Pilate, agreed to have Jesus crucified.

“We Have No King But Caesar”

It is ironic that, at the time of Jesus’ Passion, the crowds cried, “We have no king but Caesar!”

The Roman ruler of the day was Augustus’s successor, Tiberius Caesar, and he did not technically have the title “king.” The Romans were too proud of having overthrown their kings for that. But the emperors were functioning as kings, and it was obvious to everyone.

The Empire Strikes Back

The power of the emperors continued to have an impact on the early Church. Just a few decades later it was the Emperor Nero who put St. Peter and St. Paul to death at Rome.

Later emperors launched the persecutions that martyred so many early Christians—and paradoxically caused the Church to grow, until the Roman empire itself was converted to Christ.

The Roman empire was something that the first Christians had to deal with constantly. It loomed over their lives and tried to destroy them and their faith.

It will help us all understand and appreciate our faith better if we know something about the Roman empire and the impact it had on the Bible and the early Church.

Learning More

The persecution by the Roman authorities is a big part of what the book of Revelation is about.

If you’d like to learn more about that, I’d like to invite you to join my my Secret Information Club at www.SecretInfoClub.com.

It’s a service I operate by email which is absolutely free. I send out information on a variety of fascinating topics connected with the Catholic faith.

The very first thing you’ll get if you sign up is an “interview” I did with Pope Benedict on the book of Revelation. What I did was compose questions about the book of Revelation and take the answers from his writings.

He has a lot of interesting things to say!

If you’d like to find out what they are, just sign up at www.SecretInfoClub.com or use this handy sign-up form:

Just email me at jimmy@secretinfoclub.com if you have any difficulty.

If you’d like to listen to or download this in audio format, just use the player and links below!

If you liked this post, you should join Jimmy's Secret Information Club to get more great info!


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{ 15 comments }

EricEwanco September 6, 2012 at 3:01 am

I think you meant “executed” or “martyred”, not crucified. St. Paul was beheaded, right?

Jimmy Akin September 6, 2012 at 6:42 am

 @EricEwanco Yes, thanks. That was a typo in an early draft. I thought I’d gotten it out of every version. You’ll note I don’t say it in the video. Fixed now!

noprem September 6, 2012 at 12:03 pm

“in the wake of the famous Trojan War.” Aeneas figures in here.

JRS September 7, 2012 at 9:05 am

Nice summary.  I would have been tempted to work Aenaeas, Alba Longa, etc. in there, describe the Senate more (it being the institution that continued through all three phases of ancient Roman history and largely shaped that history), and so forth, but that would have been less concise.  
 
I do think we Latin Rite Catholics should revive our positive appreciation for ancient Rome.  It is origin of Western Civilization, the source of our liturgical language, the reason America calls itself a Republic, has a Senate, probably even why we have gold-colored eagles on top of so many of our flagpoles.  Pagan Rome under the likes of Nero was terrible, but part of that terribleness was that it was a corruption of perhaps the best civilization the pre-Christian world had to offer, leaving out the unique case of the Israelite of course.  Christianity eventually conquered and purified that Roman tradition, partially in history during the last years of the Empire, partially in memory later.  And the city of Rome of course will always retain its importance as the See of the successor of St. Peter.

SamDoum September 7, 2012 at 7:54 pm

Interesting read. Thank you!
-SamDoum ( http://www.bibletalesonline.com/ )

SamDoum September 7, 2012 at 7:58 pm

interesting read! Thanks!
-SamDoum ( ,bibletalesonline,com/ )

Gavin September 8, 2012 at 5:07 am

The Romans appear in the Old Testament as well: 1 Maccabees 8. Also, the Carthaginian wars are important, as the outcome assured Roman domination over the Mediterranean. Of interest: the Carthaginians, like the Jews, were a Semitic people (n.b. the “Baal” in “Hannibal”).

fidelis927 September 8, 2012 at 8:28 am

For readers who might really enjoy a fairly comprehensive and entertaining audio presentation on the history of Rome, I HIGHLY recommend the ‘The History of Rome Podcast’ found here:http://thehistoryofrome.typepad.com/
It is also available on iTunes.

fidelis927 September 8, 2012 at 9:11 am

@ Gavin. I agree about the Carthaginians. Their empire was an offshoot of the Phoenicians who for a time dominated the Mediterranean. The Phoenicians in turn were based in the biblical cities of Tyre and Sidon and may have been the progenitors of the Philistines. All important to biblical history.

Salve Maria September 9, 2012 at 3:06 am

1 Macc 17
 
So Judas [Maccabeus]… sent them to Rome to make a league of amity and confederacy with them… and they entered into the senate house… to make alliance and peace…
 
And the proposal was pleasing in their [Rome’s] sight.
 
And… [Rome] wrote back again, graven in tables of brass, and sent to Jerusalem,…
if there come first any war upon the Romans,… The nation of the Jews shall help them according as the time shall direct, with all their heart…
 
In like manner also if war shall come first upon the nation of the Jews, the Romans shall help them with all their heart, according as the time shall permit them… 
 
According to these articles did the Romans COVENANT with the people of the Jews.

Salve Maria September 9, 2012 at 3:14 am

Correct: 1 Macc 8; 17

Salve Maria September 9, 2012 at 3:13 am

1 Macc 8; 1
 
Now Judas heard of the fame of the Romans, that they are powerful and strong, and willingly agree to all things that are requested of them: and that whosoever have come to them, they have made amity with them, and that they are mighty in power…
 
And none of all these wore a crown, or was clothed in purple, to be magnified thereby.  And that they had made themselves a senate house, and consulted daily three hundred and twenty men, that sat in council always for the people, that they might do the things that were right:  And that they committed their government to one man every year, to rule over all their country, and they all obey one, and there is no envy nor jealousy amongst them.

Mark30339 September 9, 2012 at 5:48 pm

This topic is a great improvement over the Bereans, but it stops why too short.  We should explore the depth of relationship those early Christians had with the risen Christ.  How is it that they could watch their wives and children join them in being painted with blood and torn apart by lions?  How did they resist temptations for a Maccabees style armed rebellion?  And how is it that their grace under enormous duress led to a bloodless conversion of the entire empire?   Further, after the persecution was gone, what happened to the grace and the non-violence?  Compare the non-violent Solidarity movement under duress in communist Poland, and now the challenge to faith by rampant hedonism in free Poland.  

Mark30339 September 9, 2012 at 5:50 pm

This topic is a great improvement over the Bereans, but it stops way too short.  We should explore the depth of relationship those early Christians had with the risen Christ.  How is it that they could watch their wives and children join them in being painted with blood and torn apart by lions?  How did they resist temptations for a Maccabees style armed rebellion?  And how is it that their grace under enormous duress led to a bloodless conversion of the entire empire?   Further, after the persecution was gone, what happened to the grace and the non-violence?  Compare the non-violent Solidarity movement under duress in communist Poland, and now the challenge to faith by rampant hedonism in free Poland.  

Mark30339 September 9, 2012 at 5:52 pm

This topic is a great improvement over the Bereans, but it stops way too short.  We should explore the depth of relationship those early Christians had with the risen Christ.  How is it that they could watch their wives and children join them in being painted with blood and be torn apart by lions?  How did they resist temptations for a Maccabees style armed rebellion?  And how is it that their grace under enormous duress led to a bloodless conversion of the entire empire?   Further, after the persecution was gone, what happened to the grace and the non-violence?  Compare the non-violent Solidarity movement under duress in communist Poland, and now the challenge to faith by rampant hedonism in free Poland. 

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